Tom's travels

Back in Balitmore: avoid United, witnessing drama

Posted on: Fri, 06/01/2007 - 14:24 By: Tom Swiss

Back in Baltimore. I woke up this morning around 4am and for about a minute could not figure out where in the world I was. Kameoka? Osaka? Baltimore? New York? A very odd feeling. I had to turn on the light and look around before I could make what I saw match up with "home" in my head.

A few random travel observations:

  • Avoid flying United Airlines if possible. Up to now my experiences with them had been fairly positive, but they decided to change the rules on me after I bought a ticket, which is unacceptable. When I left Baltimore, the weight limit on checked bags was 70 pounds for flights to Japan. Ok, I was well under. I planed on that for returning; I realized I might be a little bit over that 70 pound limit on my suitcase, since I'd bought some heavy items, but seemed more sensible to pay a fee of about $25 for a slightly overweight bag, than to airmail another box home.

    But when I checked in for my return flight, I found that they had lowered the limit to 50 pounds - regardless of when the ticket was purchased. The best the woman behind the counter could suggest was to move some things to a third bag (fortunately I had an empty small backpack in my suitcase) and check that, bringing the suitcase under 70 pounds and so only a small fee for that, but a large fee for a third bag; the fee for a 70+ pound bag was now astronomical.

help him now; packing it in

Posted on: Wed, 05/30/2007 - 04:15 By: Tom Swiss

Probably final entry in Japan.

Zen center was great. So yesterday evening, Lester (older guy from NY, now living in Japan), his daughter Katee ("double", grew up in Japan going to gaijin schools), and her husband Max (from Manchester, early 30s maybe) arrived. We all went down to the main zendo, in walking mediation down the streets for a few minutes. The roshi came out for this, which was cool (he apparently just got back into town).

Lester was having some problem with the sitting - turns out he has some health issues. At first I was getting a little annoyed, then the compassion kicked in a bit. I remembered a verse from Ikkyu: "Don't wait for the man standing next to you to cut off his own arm/ help him now"

Zen practice and life and death

Posted on: Tue, 05/29/2007 - 02:40 By: Tom Swiss

It turns out that my stay coincided with a sort of "day off" here; got to sleep in to almost 7am, no morning service or zazen. Breakfast, like dinner last night, was formal; a whole thing about how you unwrap your bowls, pass and serve the food, and clean and re-wrap. It's curious to me that the food is eaten very quickly. I have heard this is a Rinzai thing, don't know if it's the same in Soto zendos. But if I were designing a eating ritual I'd slow it down to encourage mindfulness.

The chanting is done very quickly also; though I was given a book to follow, I was quickly lost. Okay, though, they seem to be practicing good forbearance on me here.

But it does make me wonder what the hurry is. "Hey, hurry up so we can get back to zazen!", or something? Except that we rush through a meal then have free time until the next scheduled thing. Maybe monks value that free time.

Anyway, it's cool. Zazen last night two sessions of about 30 minutes, with a short rest and stretch in between. Longer than I've sat before (at least, discounting a few extraordinary circumstance of altered states of consciousness).

Today, after lunch (informal, nice discussion - turns out the head monk here, a Russian fellow, used to do Judo and has studied acupuncture, so we had some budo and some healing talk), took a little hike up into the woods. Sat zazen by the stream for a while, watching the water eddy around the rocks.

I've written about the precepts, about the Noble truths, about magick and mysticism, since I've been here, but I haven't much touched on the big one, the thing so many people turn to religion for comfort regarding: death.

Zen center, genealogical research

Posted on: Mon, 05/28/2007 - 03:44 By: Tom Swiss

Monday. So here I am at the Zen Center, little break between evening service (chanting, I was lost except for the 10-line Kannon Sutra).

So I'm about 75% packed, will finish when I get back Wednesday. Spent yesterday scrubbing the apartment, cleaning cleaning cleaning. Also wasting time on the net; I found a free trial offer on, a genealogical site. Everyone here asking about my family ha stirred up the idea that I ought to do some research. The site has census records searches, which let me track back a ways; did find that Mom's side, the Sproles and the Hobbs both, seem to go back earlier that I'd thought - pre-Civil War. I'd always

flat tire, the problem with religion, changing our minds

Posted on: Fri, 05/25/2007 - 10:54 By: Tom Swiss

At the Cellar now, probably the last chance I'll get to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys. Good fun bar music.

Rode my bike down. Got a flat. Hell. Walking my bike, looked for a gas station with an air pump, found a closed station, no air though. Stopped down here, Edwin suggested to try the koban at Triangle Park, since the local cops do bike patrol a bit. Went down, pointed at the flat, got a pump. Trying to get some air into the tire (the valves are different and I haven't fully figured them out), I smelled smoke. A few minutes later, there were many fire engines on the scene right across the street, quite a bit of smoke pouring out. Some people seemed to be trapped on the fifth floor, I was a little worried, until a cherry-picker truck showed up (most of the fire engines are about the size of minivans). So that was a thing to see.

So I've been thinking a bit the past few days about just what exactly is the problem I'm trying to solve with this whole "Zen Pagan" thing? What is the requirements spec?

The problem:

Religion has always been a mess.

There are a couple of things that get mixed up. There's the desire for a certain experience, that experience of connection, of the Godhead. There's ethical teachings - both in the 'Thou shall not' and in the 'For your contentment, we suggest' variations. There's the myths and legends that give us role models. There's the superstitions born of fear, and the supernaturalism born out of ignorance. There's the preservation of the knowledge needed for the community to thrive. There's the deliberate hiding of knowledge that would threaten the priesthood's power.

farewell party at the dojo; mailing books

Posted on: Thu, 05/24/2007 - 05:38 By: Tom Swiss

One week. I'm a little sad.

Yesterday, packing and cleaning during the day, then to the dojo. A bit of training, then a very nice farewell party.

Senpai Yuka's mother, it turns out, is a bit of a traditional apparel expert; she actually gives classes on wearing kimono. (Yes, it's complicated enough - at least the women's one - that proper wearing is a subject of serious study.) She produced hakama and proceeded to wrap Rob (the Australian sankyu guy who recently arrived and works for KIS) and I up in them. Should be some good photos.

They gave me a Kansai Seido T-shirt, which I think will be the envy of everyone this summer. The Maryland Seido pins I had hoped to give Senpai Kuwa and his family hadn't arrived yet (but I think I can adapt the plan and still get them there), but I gave the dojo the Daruma figure I had brought over. It was my "I want to go to Japan and stay for a good while" Daruma, so this seemed appropriate. I looked up the kanji, for "Nana korobi ya oki" and made a little inscription on the back in Sharpie. Also freed up some space in my luggage by so doing...

A couple of the little girls made cards for me that are so kawaii I can hardly stand it. Will have to take photos of them and include here when I upload to the blog.


Posted on: Tue, 05/22/2007 - 07:24 By: Tom Swiss

Today, Hiroshima.

I was moved to tears several times. Sometimes I wanted to grab people and say, "Don't you see? Don't you understand?"

But of course the people who live there, have to get on with their lives. We can't remember too much, or we'd stop to memorialize every step; every square yard of earth is the grave of some being.

Kurama; Buddhist precepts; "You got your mind right?"

Posted on: Mon, 05/21/2007 - 07:04 By: Tom Swiss

Today, Kurama. This mountain is the birthplace of Reiki; Gogen Yamaguchi trained here. There's also a legend about the swordsman Yoshitsune learning from a tengu (goblin) here.

So I was quite interested in seeing the place. The temple (which pretty much owns the mountain, apparently) used to be Tendai, but now is independent, which I found interesting.

But the I get there and get the brochure. "More than six million years ago, Mao-son (the great king of the conquerors of evil and the spirit of the earth) descended upon Mt. Kurama from Venus, with the great mission of the salvation of mankind." Uh, yeah, sure. And it seems from the tone of the brochure that they take this, not as a legend about the temple's founding, but an article of faith. So that was a turn-off.

liberation, "do what thou wilt"

Posted on: Sun, 05/20/2007 - 05:57 By: Tom Swiss

So I'm thinking about this upcoming stay at the Zen center. Zen is a way of liberation, which raises the question - liberation from what? The thing is, we're already free, Buddha-nature permeates everything.

This is easy for even a child to say, but hard for even a wise elder to practice.

Similar is Crowley's "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." That leaves only two minor questions - "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" - to be investigated. (I wonder if JMS thought of it this way?)

Shinkansen tickets, artistic lap dance, drinking in moderation

Posted on: Sat, 05/19/2007 - 18:12 By: Tom Swiss

On the Shinkansen to Nagoya.

The brain - and this is not at all an original observation - is a strange thing.

So here I am on this blazing fast train, Osaka to Kyoto in fifteen minutes (really - left Shin-Osaka 14;23, now stopped in Kyoto 14:38). Am I worried about a fiery crash? No, I was worried that, even with English available on the ticket machines, I wouldn't be able to figure out how to buy a ticket. (Shinkansen tickets are this weird two-part deal, one for the distance, one for the means by which you travel it.) But I puzzled it out. Hurray for me.

Stayed out late last night for Liz's sayonara party. She had to change her performance plan: renting a projector would have been prohibitively expensive, sort of defeating the whole chairtable purpose of the gig. So she decided to auction off a "lap dance". Well, seeing as it's all for a good cause, when the first few bids were low, I decided to it bump up a bit. Somehow David and I ended up tying with winning bids, and a round of rock-paper-scissors came out in a tie (two scissors), so we both chipped in 5000 Yen (about $40) and got to be participants in the show. (It was a PG-13, experimental improv "lap dance", not really the sort of thing you see at the "gentleman's club", more of a hoot than a turn-on. Fun.)

Subscribe to Tom's travels